Un homme de paille and more French expressions using the word ‘man’

On International Men’s Day, we explore the meaning and origins of phrases related to men

19 November 2021

Learn French words and expressions you may hear in the news today Pic: The Connexion

Today (November 19) is International Men’s Day, a day dedicated to bringing awareness to social issues faced by men.

These include a significantly higher suicide rate among men when compared to that of women, fathers facing barriers when wanting to be more involved in their children’s lives and harmful gender stereotypes perpetuated by common expressions such as ‘man up’ and ‘boys don’t cry’.

International Men’s Day began in 1999 at the initiative of Dr Jerome Teelucksingh, a professor of Caribbean History in Trinidad and Tobago. It has since spread to over 60 countries.

This year’s theme is ‘better relations between men and women’.

Here we look at three French expressions around the word ‘homme’

Un homme de paille (literally ‘a man of straw’):

An ‘homme de paille’ is somebody who presents themselves as someone else, often in a dubious affair.

In the 17th century, the expression was used to describe somebody of low social standing, with little financial means - they were seen to be as worthless as straw.

It is said that an association was made with someone who covers for others by lending their identity - his morals are worthless, again like straw.

However, another theory is that the expression was inspired by the straw mannequins used in combat training, which took hits instead of a real person.

Homme de main (literally ‘a handman’):

A ‘handman’ is someone who carries out (often violent) actions for another. An English equivalent might be ‘henchman’.

The hand in this expression represents action and is synonymous with combat. The ‘handman’ carries out the orders of someone else.

Comme un seul homme (literally ‘as a single man’):

This expression means ‘unanimously’, ‘together’ or ‘in agreement’.

It has its origins in the Old Testament, in the Book of Judges where ‘all the people [of Israel] stood like one man’ to demand justice for a crime that had been committed.

The image of ‘one man’ represents unity and is employed multiple times throughout the Bible, including in the Books of Samuel and Ezra.

One of its first recorded uses in the French language was in 1832 by the writer Balzac in his novel La Femme de trente ans (A Woman of Thirty). 

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